Did the W3C acknowledge CDF's potential as an office format (vs ODF) in newly public e-mail?

Last week, after interviewing most of the players involved in a controversy regarding the future of the OpenDocument Format (a controversy mostly...
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

Last week, after interviewing most of the players involved in a controversy regarding the future of the OpenDocument Format (a controversy mostly rooted in the confusion of two nearly identical but very different acronyms: ODf and ODF), I noted that some of those players -- IBM, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the principals of the now-defunct OpenDocument Foundation (ODf: an organization that, despite its name, was never the official or even un-official chaperone to the OpenDocument Format standard) -- had very different recollections of certain conversations.

On one side were the principals of the shuttered ODf (again, an organization that's not to be confused with "the Format") who claim that in conversations or e-mails, both IBM and the W3C have, independently of each other, validated the notion that the W3C's Compound Document Format specification (CDF) could play a role in storing and retrieving productivity (a.k.a. "office) documents (word processing, spreadhsheets, presentations, etc.).

Gary Edwards and Sam Hiser, two of the principals behind the former ODf (Foundation) -- an outfit that was once a proponent of ODF (Format) -- now claim ODF to be inviable as a global open standard for office documents and that CDF is the better strategic target as for such a standard. They claim that, in private conversations with IBM officials, they learned of how IBM shares this vision; so much so that a derivation of CDF (what Edwards call CDF+) is one of the linchpins to Big Blue's grand strategy when it comes to the office productivity and collaboration tools coming out the company's Lotus division. They also claimed that despite public comments to the contrary, the W3C also agreed that CDF could serve in a capacity that ODF (Format) has been designed for.

Both IBM and the W3C went on record with me last week to say that Edwards and Hiser's version of events were grossly misleading. As a result, near the end of my analysis, I wrote:

As for the differences over what was said, I don’t want to say anyone is a liar. I wasn’t in the room or party to the relevant threads. So all I have to go on is what everyone on both sides of the debate is telling me. I can repeat that here (which I’ve done) and leave the decision as to which one of the three following things is true to you: (1) Hiser and Edwards are accurately representing their interactions with the W3C and IBM and the people they communicated with like IBM’s Heintzman and the W3C’s Schepers are part of a well-organized conspiracy to discredit them, (2) Hiser and Edwards are purposefully misrepresenting the content of their communications, (3) it’s all a big mix-up — an honest misunderstanding.

Why all the fuss over something that's seemingly so obscure in nature? Especially when it involves just two people out of the thousands that stand behind ODF (Format) at organizations like OASIS (the consortium that oversees ODF's technical evolution) and the Open Document Alliance? The stakes are unbelievably high. In fact, if there's one industry battle that could be classified as a modern day Armageddon, the war between the backers of ODF (Format) and Microsoft which has put forth an alternative to ODF called Office Open XML (OOXML) is it.

In one corner are companies like IBM, Sun, Google, and Red Hat that believe the key to loosening Microsoft's grip on the desktop lies in the file formats behind Microsoft Office. The way the thinking goes is that if the world's addiction to Microsoft's file formats can be broken, then so too can the world's addiction to Microsoft Office and from there, then the addiction to Windows -- thereby paving the way for organizations and consumers to consider competing productivity and collaborative solutions such as IBM's Lotus Symphony, the open source-based OpenOffice.org, Sun's StarOffice (essentially, a commercial implementation of OpenOffice.org), and Google Apps, all of which are compatible with Microsoft's Windows but none of which require it.

For example, Google Apps which includes a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation solution runs in a browser, thereby freeing customers to choose among desktop operating systems. Conversely, although Microsoft offers Mac-based versions of Microsoft Office, most businesses that standardize on Microsoft Office also run it on Windows because of how the Mac version often lags in support of important features. Case in point? Although the OOXML file formats are now natively supported in the last three versions of Microsoft Office for Windows (2003, XP, and 2007), not only doesn't the current version of Mac Office support it natively (Mac Office 2008, due in 2008Q1, is scheduled to natively support OOXML), Microsoft's only solution for bridging compatibility in Mac Office -- a downloadable converter -- is still in beta (v0.2).

Although Microsoft is loathe to acknowledge the threat that ODF (Format) poses to its franchise, actions speak louder than words. While the company has contributed resources to an open source-based ODF conversion utility, it doesn't natively support ODF in any version of Microsoft Office. Should Microsoft choose to support ODF in Office, it would be enabling its customers to more easily switch to competing solutions from companies like IBM, Sun, and Google. But more importantly, although there is much debate over how open OOXML really is (degree of "openness" has been central to the ODF vs. OOXML debate), Microsoft's move to make OOXML open and royalty-free for implementation in competing products happened only after ODF garnered serious attention from influential customers (like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) for its openness. With other organizations around the world watching the Massachusetts test case very closely, Microsoft had only two choices: offer native support for ODF in Microsoft Office or open up its own file formats. In a move that echoed Microsoft's resolve to head ODF off at the pass, it picked the latter route. The war was on.

Since then, the two corners (Microsoft in one, the ODF [Format] camp in the other) have been engaged in an unrelenting battle that's offering the world a rare glimpse into the tenacity and influence of all the companies involved and that has cost both sides millions in marketing and lobbying dollars. Not suprisingly, where ever in the world ODF turns up as an issue (along with its backers), so too does OOXML and Microsoft.

For example, through a very special status afforded to the OASIS consortium, the ODF specification was put onto the fast track for consideration as an international standard by the International Organisation of Standardisation (ISO). At the international level, ISO standards play an important role in government purchasing decisions. ODF passed and is now listed as an ISO standard. Not to be outdone, Microsoft managed to get OOXML on the ISO's fast track as well, but through a separate consortium (Ecma) that is afforded the same very special status to put specifications on the ISO fast track that OASIS is afforded. Only in OOXML's case, its first lap around the ISO's fast track was not nearly as successful as ODF's first run. Today, although OOXML failed in its first bid to become an international standard, it is due to return to the ISO stage in February 2008.

Along the way, both sides know that there is little margin for error. All it takes is for one slip-up in messaging, one missed appointment, one mistake or one technical snafu to create a hole that the other side will gladly drive a Mack truck through. The stakes are so high that both sides have done a remarkable if not awe-inspiring (though not always commendable) job in executing their global full court presses. For the ODF community, it's relatively minor to have a few dissenters like Edwards and Hiser break ranks. But, should the W3C concur with Edwards and Hiser that CDF is the more sensible candidate (than ODF) to be the world's international open standard for universal document interop and portability, solidarity around ODF could weaken. And any weakening of solidarity around ODF is exactly the sort of hole that Microsoft would look to drive a truck through.

If an indicator from the W3C that CDF is better-suited for ODF's job than ODF could lead to such a hole, a similar indicator from IBM would be disastrous for the ODF community. Although it's nothing more than a wild guess on my behalf, I'm willing to bet that IBM is probably responsible for more than 40 percent of the global resources being brought to bear on ODF's behalf, if not 50 or 60 (percent). Microsoft wouldn't need a Mack truck to take advantage of an IBM insinuation that ODF is non-strategic (or, "transitional" as Edwards said to me in an e-mail). Global support for ODF would very likely unravel because of how many people from governments to businesses to the ISO would feel betrayed and Microsoft's OOXML would be left as the only format standing. The ODF coalition might live to see another day and another battle with CDF as their savior, but the damage would very likely be irreversible given the long memories of most of those who were betrayed.

This should give you some idea of the Battle Royale being fought right now. Speaking of long memories, it's a Battle Royale that stretches almost all the way back to the day that IBM decided that Microsoft's DOS would be the chosen operating system for Big Blue's first (and subsquent) PCs on the market. IBM was a kingmaker that day and Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen became industry royalty overnight. Microsoft later leveraged that royalty status to successfully jilt IBM at the alter after the two initially agreed to collaborate on a 32-bit graphical operating system known as OS/2. Microsoft, who, thanks to IBM's kingmaking, had the advantage of a distribution channel (all the clone makers) for its operating systems that IBM did not have, went its separate way with its own 32-bit OS (Windows NT) and IBM was left dumbfounded at the alter with OS/2 and almost no channel other than its own systems to market it. Since then, Microsoft has whittled away at IBM's customers, successfully leveraging its desktop popularity into opportunities for the NT code-base to go after IBM's big iron business (on Intel-based servers). Now, in the coalition it has helped to build around ODF, IBM could finally be in a position to seek revenge. That is of course, so long as that coalition survives.

Whereas the W3C has very little riding on ODF (Format), IBM has everything riding on it. Alright, not everything. IBM is involved in plenty of other businesses. But, after investing so much in ODF and now being so close to its best shot at seeking the aforementioned revenge, the last thing Big Blue can afford is a material breakdown in the world's interest in ODF.

As of last week, both IBM and the W3C remained resolute in their opinions that Edwards and Hiser had it wrong: that they were reading far too deeply between the lines of the conversations and e-mails that had taken place. Without having been a fly on the wall or having had access to those e-mails, it was impossible for me or anyone else to make a ruling on who is right and who is wrong. One thing I was sure of though was that after publishing that treatise last week, more facts -- probably the e-mails in question -- would come to light. I wrote:

Today, I just wanted to get to the bottom of the he said/she said and, to the extent that more facts are needed, my sense is that additional information will come to light once I press the publish button. That is after all the beauty of the blogosphere. The mob usually finds the truth, eventually. Someone will be vindicated.

The question now is whether that moment has arrived for Gary Edwards and Sam Hiser in whole or in part, or maybe not at all. In response to my post, Doug Schepers, the primary contact at the W3C for CDF commented that in his eyes, it was simply an "honest misunderstanding on their part, and perhaps overenthusiasm." Edwards, who over the weekend, disclosed to me the exact content of his e-mails with Schepers clearly had enough and simply published those e-mails here on ZDNet under the heading An Honest Misunderstanding? Hardly! Play the tape!. You can read the e-mails yourself. But, if there's any text in them that vindicates Edwards and Hiser, it's the part where Schepers wrote the following to them (I've boldfaced the most salient point):

We'd like to thank you for your interest, and your consideration (Sam, in your blog) and praise of CDF and the W3C. We are glad to see you embracing our shared vision of a royalty-free, open, interoperable presentational and logical format. Of course, CDF is designed primarily for the Web, but we see no reason it cannot serve the dual purpose as part of an office interchange format.....This is just a friendly note to start a dialog rolling.

As can be seen from my initial post on the matter last week, the W3C characterized this first outreach to Edwards and Hiser as cursory in level; a par for the course transmission whenever the W3C sees promising work being done on its standards by third parties. But as can be seen from the text of the e-mail, Schepers appears to suggest that CDF could indeed serve as "part of an office interchange format." In Schepers' favor (that it was an honest misunderstanding), "part of an office interchange format" isn't the same thing as saying "an office file format" or "a replacement for CDF." But, in saying "dual purpose," Schepers does seem to suggest that CDF could be viable in a role other than the one originally conceived for it.

Edwards and Hiser argue that Schepers' e-mail contradicts statements about CDF made by the W3C's Chris Lilley -- statements that were reported in the blog of Andy Updegrove, general counsel to OASIS - an organization that, as chaperone to the ODF (Format) specification, would rather not see an evaporation of support for ODF:

So we were in a meeting when these articles about the Foundation and CDF started to appear, and we were really puzzled. CDF isn’t anything like ODF at all – it’s an “interoperability agreement,” mainly focused on two other specifications - XHTML and SVG. You’d need to use another W3C specification, called Web Interactive Compound Document (WICD, pronounced “wicked”), for exporting, and even then you could only view, and not edit the output.

The one thing I’d really want your readers to know is that CDF (even together with WICD) was not created to be, and isn’t suitable for use, as an office format.

On first blush, the Schepers' e-mail and Lilley's comments appear to contradict each other regarding the potential of CDF. But this is where the technicalities of CDF surpass my ability to say whether the two statements are mutually exclusive, or not. That, I'll leave up to you and other experts to decide. Secondarily to that, I think it's fair to say that Schepers' note involves a bit more than standard outreach for the W3C. There is a bit of an assessment in there -- a specific one at that. Is it still cursory in nature? I'd like to hear from you on that as well.

Working against Edwards and Hiser for now is a reference they made to W3C director and inventor of the Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee. According to a post Edwards published on the OpenDocument Fellowship's Web site, Schepers indicated to him that Berners-Lee was now involved in the process as well. So far, there's no evidence to suggest this is true which in turn speaks to the credibility of Edwards and Hiser as we continue our search for the truth.

But one thing remains certain: We are working our way closer to the truth on this matter and we're doing so in a fashion that's ready-made for the blogosphere and that's hard to duplicate via traditional media approaches (as a student of the media, I had to throw that in there).

So, what do you think? Do Edwards and Hiser have more credibility now that this e-mail has come to light?

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